It all started with a bet: San Francisco-area blogger Jeffrey Strain, 43, said he could get through a month of eating on $1 a day. His sister said he couldn't. With some couponing know-how, he set out to prove her wrong and blogged about it (grocerycouponguide.com/articles/eating-well-on-1-a-day/).
He managed to eat three meals a day (without ever falling back on instant noodles) and donate hundreds of dollars in products he acquired to food banks. But staying within budget wasn't the only challenge of his project. Mr. Strain spoke to The Globe and Mail about his $1-a-day diet.
From the get-go, you said you hated shopping and you can't cook. So what was your game plan to get you through the month when you first started?
You don't know week to week what type of deals are going to come out. Sometimes there's nothing, and sometimes there are very good deals. Because I started with absolutely no base of food at all, I was either going to die that first week or I was going to get lucky and there would be enough there and I could get a base going and go from there. Fortunately, I was lucky and I was able to keep going.
Sometimes just using one coupon at the checkout can irritate the cashier. What was it like using multiples every time you went grocery shopping?
Probably the hardest thing about couponing is when you're beginning and you're not sure about how things work and the cashiers aren't sure about how things work. That's when the real problems kind of happen because nobody knows what's going on, and that's when managers get called over and things like that. … If you get that cashier that doesn't know what's going on, you simply ask, "Okay, can you call the manager over, or would you like me to go to a customer service desk?" and you just get it out of the way and solve the problem pre-emptively.
Did you get any dirty looks from customers who were standing in line behind you?
Initially I do when they see what I'm doing, but when they see the price I end up paying, they're so shocked it's more, "How the hell did he just do that?" than being mad because it took long or whatever. Basically, it's a game. And if you learn the rules, you can do it.
You had to buy a lot of stuff that you didn't actually want just to get other coupons or further discounts. I think the most memorable was your purchase of tampons to get some peanut butter.
I think that's what keeps most people from doing this type of thing. You don't generally think, "Okay, I'm going to buy something I don't want to get something." When I get in a situation where I'm buying a whole bunch of stuff I don't need, I know it's going to be going to someone who does need it. It's one of the goals that I had: to show people that even if you don't have a whole lot of money and you're trying to save on your own, it doesn't mean that you can't help other people out at the same time. Even if you are on a dollar a day, there's also an opportunity to give back to your local community, your local food bank, shelters.
In reading through your posts and looking at the details of all the math you had to do and figuring out, "Should I use the coupon this week to combine with other deals or hold onto it for another week?", it just sounded very exhausting. So how time-consuming was all of this?
Most people think that I have to cut out all the coupons, I need to sort 'em, I need to keep track of them, I need to do this and that. I probably miss some deals because I don't do it that way, but I just don't have the time and I don't enjoy it.
I have a very basic way of doing it. I would say that I spend less than 10 minutes on getting the coupons out of the paper and filing them away. I probably spend an hour going over the flyers from the grocery stores.
Did you get bored with what you were eating? I just noticed there was one day when I think you had whole wheat tortillas for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a combination of other foods.
At the beginning, it was just really limited. There just wasn't a whole lot of different things I could do because I didn't have a base of food. But I have never been one that can't eat the same thing over and over and over again. Food tends to be more [about]energy for me than an event, something to savour.
A dollar a day, you seem to have found, was a little too little. What do you think is a reasonable amount?
I don't know if there's an actual amount that's a reasonable amount. I think a lot of it depends on the types of foods that people want to eat and what they're into. What I can say is that probably everybody out there can reduce the amount they spend from 50 to 90 per cent very, very easily, no matter what they're currently eating, with just looking at the way they buy. Instead of going out and buying what you decide you want to eat that night, by looking in your pantry and making meals from your pantry and then buying the food you do want when it is at the best price or when you can get a good deal on it, you can really save a lot more than you would ever imagine you could.
This interview has been condensed and edited.